Ali, Jackie & The Babe
I wrote this story in fifteen minutes Saturday morning, when the planets were in alignment, and posted it to “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas” (ESPN.com/1927), where I appear now and then and which I commend to your attention. Thanks to the 1927 team for its gracious permission to share this with readers of Our Game.
Witnessing the past week’s outpouring of grief and tribute for the departed champ, Muhammad Ali, puts me in mind of — surprise, surprise — baseball.
Ali was a hero larger than life, a legend in his own time, and not only in areas of race and religion. He was True North, a lodestone for a generation wishing to free itself from a troubling past and an uncertain future. We know today, if we did not know it before, how our nation and our world felt about a man who rose from the streets of a racially divided city to become a role model of achievement, principle, and concern for others.
I once said about Jackie Robinson:
For me, baseball’s finest moment is the day Jackie Robinson set foot on a major league field for the first time. . . I’m most proud to be an American, most proud to be a baseball fan when baseball has led America rather than followed it. It has done so several times, but this is the most transforming incident.
Jackie Robinson is my great hero among baseball heroes and he’s my great hero as an American. He is an individual who shaped the crowd.
That pretty well describes what it is a hero does. Unlike the rest of us, he is determined to be himself even while he is acting on behalf of others, or knows that his every move will affect others — which is why these words of Ali’s stuck with me especially:
I don’t have to be what you want me to be.
Nodding toward the responsibility implicit in being a role model for millions, Ali and Jackie became heroes by going their own way. We may respect public servants, but we love those who question the rules, stand up to them, break them.
For those of my age, Jackie was our childhood hero. We graduated to appreciate and today venerate Ali.
For me, Babe Ruth has always been a distant figure of lore and legend, and I love him because I love a good story (I love Davy Crockett and P.T. Barnum, too). But with the passing of Ali, the veil lifts for me regarding how a nation thought about the Babe while he walked among them, and how they felt about him when he, and a piece of them, died in the summer of 1948.
I understand better what it was like to be alive back then, before I was born. And that seems to me the true goal for a historian, one who gathers and reshapes the tales that we tell around the campfire at night to assure ourselves of tomorrow.
You can find a complete collection of my essays for ESPN’s 1927 project at this page.